Hank Pitcher met me when I arrived in Santa Barbara, and as we made our first drive along the beach, he explained that it was one of the rare places with a south-facing coastline, which affects the light, surf, and feel of the area. Pitcher’s love of the land—and the pleasure he derives from a lifelong attachment to home, his family, and his extended family of surfers, colleagues, and students at the College of Creative Studies—was palpable and contagious. During our time together, we laughed a lot, and I drank up the smells of jasmine, the purple blooms of jacaranda trees, the taste of strawberries from a roadside stand, and of course, the beach.
Our interview took place over beer and homemade tacos in his studio, where windows frame a view of nothing but the ocean’s waves. Pitcher is a surfer-painter, who, back in 1972, named and created the infamous logo for Sex Wax, a surfboard wax formulated by his friend Rick Herzog (“Mr. Zog”).
Pitcher’s mark-making and way of defining forms is characterized by a succinct accuracy, deriving from an enduring internalization of place, along with an ongoing enthusiasm for observation. His subject is the beach, its culture, and its flora and fauna: surfers, surfboards, his friends, his wife, two grown sons, and their friends, beach-volleyball, hotel pools, and nature preserves all along the neighboring coastline. He paints outdoors, on the beach (one afternoon I sunbathed and hung out with his wife Susan, a stylist and fashion consultant, while he worked).
Pitcher was born in Pasadena in 1949 and moved to Isla Vista when he was two years old. He attended the then-newly formed College of Creative Studies within the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is now a Senior Lecturer at the College of Creative Studies, where he has been part of the core faculty since 1971. His work has been exhibited at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Laguna Beach Museum of Art, and the gallery of Ventura College, California. A forty-year retrospective of his painting was held in 2013 at the Weigand Gallery of the Notre Dame du Namur University in Belmont, California. He has shown at Tatistcheff Gallery in Los Angeles, and his work is represented by Sullivan Goss Gallery, Santa Barbara.
* * *
Jennifer Samet: What experiences did you have with art as a child? What did your parents do, and how were they involved with you becoming a painter?
Hank Pitcher: I loved looking at images as a child. When I was really little, I saw a reproduction of the famous painting by William Holman Hunt, “Light of the World” (1853). I convinced my mother to buy it for me. I also remember my grandmother had a reproduction of a beautiful Manet painting, with a woman in a boat and a man behind her rowing, and a flag billowing. I always misread it, and thought the boat was on fire.
I grew up in Santa Barbara. My father was a carpenter and my mother was a housewife. My parents were wonderful in the sense that they never told me what to do, or what not to do. They just always encouraged me.
My father’s family was Polish. My father was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Poland. His life was filled with struggle. When he was seven years old, the Russians invaded Poland. He was separated from his family and lived with the Russian Cavalry, shining their boots for food. During World War II, he was a civilian working in Wake Island, building an Air Force Base. The Pacific Fleet was wiped out and everyone on the island was taken prisoner for the duration of the war. He lived through all of that, and in retrospect, I imagine he suffered some kind of post-traumatic stress.
Later, he worked for a company that built the first permanent building at the University of California, Santa Barbara. My parents were able to buy a little house in Isla Vista. At the time, Santa Barbara was a very small but sophisticated town and Isla Vista was a couple of small farms and dirt roads.
In the sixth grade, I had a great art teacher. He gave everybody paper and paint, turned off the lights and pulled the shades so we could barely see, played the Miles Davis album “Sketches of Spain,” and told us to paint what we felt. Even in high school I had an art studio. It was on the second floor of an old storefront, with high ceilings, downtown on State Street.
JS: You studied at the College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where you have now taught for forty years. Why did you decide to go to school there?
HP: I was a football player in high school and could have gone to lots of colleges for football. But the College of Creative Studies had just been founded within UCSB, and it sounded really interesting. Also, they had a football team, and it was a pretty good one for a small school.
At that time, the University of California held an annual “All University Arts Festival.” I attended one at UCLA, and it was astounding. It was a 1960s idea; they had rooms full of supplies and musical instruments and invited all kinds of interesting visitors. I got to hang out with Marcel Marceau, and I learned a lot about painting by listening to him talk about the principles of illusion.
During my first week of classes at UCSB’s College of Creative Studies, Buckminster Fuller was visiting. Every night for two weeks, he lectured informally. Another student told me to check him out. I heard him talk for four hours, and I quit the football team the next day. I thought, “This is the world I want to be involved in.” Compared to that, the football coaches weren’t saying anything interesting.
Another great teacher was the literary critic Marvin Mudrick, who published in the Hudson Review. He was an astounding intellect. He could give riveting, brilliant, off-the-cuff lectures on anybody: Chaucer, D.H. Lawrence, Emily Dickinson. He brought out guests like Harold Rosenberg, Jacques D’Amboise, and Suzanne Farrell. All of the premiere dancers of the New York City Ballet were there for two weeks. Students were permitted to watch them rehearse, and then see them perform. It was a very small program, so you met everyone.
JS: One of your teachers was the painter Paul Wonner. Can you tell me about him?
HP: One of the things that Paul Wonner said was, “A painting has to be good to look at before it’s good to look into.” I still quote this to my students. What he meant was that content is something you understand later, not at first sight. It is like seeing a person from across the room. They look good, and as you get closer, they still look good. You keep getting closer and closer, as long as it is still working out. Wonner said in that way, paintings are seductive. It was not a modernist, conceptual idea about painting; it was a sensual understanding of painting. I responded to that.
Wonner exhibited with Charles Campbell, the gallery director who brought all the great Indian miniature painting to the United States. Wonner used to trade his work for Indian miniatures, so he had a world-class collection. He invited students to his house a couple times and I remember getting to look at them. The skill and space in those paintings had a big influence on me.
The paintings of Wonner’s that I liked best were his Lunacy series, which were beautiful gouache and watercolor paintings. He conceived of them as illustrations for an unwritten book of poetry. One painting showed a fish halfway out of water, looking at the moon. I have only a few regrets in life, and one of them is that I didn’t buy that painting. Now it is in the collection of the Oakland Museum. A lot of his paintings were based on dreams. Later he got more involved in big, complex still-lifes, but I preferred those smaller, more narrative ones.
JS: How did you transition into teaching at CCS?
HP: I was looking around at graduate schools and couldn’t find any that were focused on painting. Mudrick asked if I would consider staying and doing post-graduate work. It was hardly a job – more of an offer to stick around and teach some classes. I was having a lot of shows at that time and gathering momentum. I was in a big show at the Santa Barbara Museum: New Work, which was a combination of artists from New York and California. I also showed at Charles Campbell Gallery.
So I stayed, and eventually I ended up running the painting department at CCS. It was during the wealthy years of the university, and I had a budget to invite whoever I wanted to teach and lecture. All of the interesting Los Angeles artists came up. It was a great, dynamic program. I hired Charles Garabedian to teach, and he returned regularly. Through him, I absorbed a history of California painting. Jane Freilicher came for a while and was wonderful, as did Alfred Leslie. Paul Georges came several times, and he would teach and then we would paint together on the beach. He loved to talk and would share with me his experiences with Fernand Léger, Hans Hofmann and the Figurative Artists Alliance in New York.
I also hired John McCracken. His classes became very popular. He taught Astro-Traveling. Once, I had to go with the vice chancellor to observe. We walked into this big, filled auditorium at night. The lights were off and he was standing with only the podium lights shining on his face. His eyes were closed, and he was saying, “We are now over Mount Shasta…”
McCracken was serious – all of that was real to him, and part of his work. He was intellectually curious, a scholar of Carl Jung. He talked about “presences” in his work. All of the proportions of his sculpture were specific; there was a difference if a sculpture was 6-foot, 1-inch tall or 6-foot, 1½-inches tall. His studio was also perfect and precise like the sculptures. He was always immaculately dressed, in a pressed plaid shirt over a high-collared sweater. He was finally forced out after many years; I could fight it for only so long.
We were close, and it was so much fun talking about painting with him. He made these muddy paintings, which were completely different from his sculptures: filled with everything you could possibly imagine.
JS: When did you start making observational paintings outdoors, and how did you arrive at that way of working? Are the paintings always begun outdoors?
HP: At some point I realized, I am living in Santa Barbara, so why not work outside? Also, there is that Eugène Boudin quote:, “Two strokes in the field are worth two weeks in the studio.” In the field I often see something I could never make up – for instance, the painting of my older son, “Lincoln and Maguey” (2014). He came down to the beach with a new surfboard. I saw this yin-yang form: blue against the white, and white against the blue. I was out painting and he was standing there, and I thought, “Wow. That is perfect.”
I always begin the paintings outdoors, but then there is some fussing that needs to happen in the studio. Sometimes, when I work on them too much in the studio, I will lose it. For me, it has always been a balance between wanting to have that experience of motion and the abstraction in the studio. When one dominates the other, it doesn’t hold up.
JS: You are a longtime, avid surfer, and a significant aspect of your work is the paintings of surfers and surfboards. Can you tell me about that?
HP: I started out with narrative paintings from photographs. In college I set out to make a painting for every day of the decade of the 1920s. They each had to do with an event — the day in 1926 that Marilyn Monroe was born, the day that Greta Garbo arrived in the United States, the day that Einstein defined the theory of relativity. Those paintings were based on reading and research.
Then Paul Wonner said something that was a real challenge. He said, “For you, and for so many kids, surfing is such an important part of your life. But I never see it in your work.” It just clicked, and my work changed. I didn’t know a lot of other painters working from observation. But, stubbornly, I have always believed it is possible to make art about these things around me.
The first show I had in Los Angeles was in the Megan Williams Gallery, which had just taken over Nick Wilder’s wonderful gallery space. I showed my big surf paintings. Nobody had really done paintings about surfing, and it seemed to give others permission to do it.
I have always been interested in sign painting. I think of painting the logos on surfboards as a contemporary parallel to the notations on banners in Piero della Francesca paintings. The shape of a surfboard is the shape of a shield.
I have witnessed a sea change and it has become documented in my work. In some of my early paintings, the women look like ornaments, accompanying the men, but now women are dominant surfers. They are powerhouses of the sport. The way they hold their bodies is different. Over time, when you paint people, you can record this.
JS: Many of your paintings are done in one sitting, but others are longer-term studio paintings, which record an almost panoramic landscape. Do you have different goals for that work?
HP: That’s true — many of the paintings are done in one sitting, but I am interested in showing a whole day, or many days, within one painting. People think we do not have seasons in Santa Barbara, but we have very powerful ones. Things are constantly in flux, blooming, dying; the colors and smells change quickly. You become attuned to all of the differences when you live here.
I learned more about Charles Burchfield’s work and realized they showed multiple seasons within the same painting. That gave me the idea and permission to incorporate the light before sunrise, at sunrise, and after sunrise in the same painting: to have it be a seamless, continuous narrative space, and not appear as a collage.
Recently, I have been more focused on developing that open space in painting. I think about how walking and being in nature engages our peripheral vision. I have a friend who is a neurologist and I have learned that this is a vital part of cognitive and physical health. When we look at our phone screens, our bodies contract. There is also a difference between looking at a landscape shaped for the interests of man, by man, as opposed to the forces of nature. Nature is about how the wind creates the clouds, how it shapes the mountains and sand dunes, which shape the surface of the ocean, which shapes the bottom of the ocean. There is a continuous relationship between these forces.
JS: You have watched this landscape, and the city of Santa Barbara, change over the decades, and you have also mentioned political and social changes. How does this come together in your work? Also, do you consider how observational paintings of these landscapes are perceived in the larger contemporary art world?
HP: Over the years I have gained access to off-limit places that are mythic for surfers. They are so protected you cannot even mention their names in print. Like the rest of the world, these sacred places are being affected by climate change and development. I have started big legacy paintings, which are about all the light and space, but which also contain figures and accurate depictions of the flora and fauna as they are now.
It is difficult to integrate a person and a moment. Once you place a figure in a landscape, it becomes all that a viewer can focus on. I think about Monet’s early paintings of women in the garden. Over the course of his career, the figures in his paintings get smaller and smaller. Finally they disappear, because it is so challenging to paint both landscape and people simultaneously.
I want my paintings to have that juiciness of the narrative, the people, the landscape, and the weather. Think about how you were just describing the air – the cool breezes, the warmth, the smells, the sounds: it is a total sensual experience. It is challenging for a contemporary artist to make peak experience their subject. You are flirting with the sentimental and the picturesque. It can be easy to be ironic, to talk about death and hate. I would like for someone to come up to my paintings and want to roll around in the landscape, swim in the water. The hardest thing in the world is to talk about real love and beauty, because it is so vulnerable.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.